It isn't cheating if everybody else is doing it." So declared Canadian track coach Charlie Francis in 1988 when his sprinter Ben Johnson became the Olympics' highest-profile disqualification ever by testing positive for steroids. But of 8,465 competitors at Seoul, only Johnson and nine others were booted for drugs. What's this about "everybody"?
Good question, tough answer. You can be sure that many more than 10 athletes used banned substances in Seoul, and many more than 10 will use them in Sydney. Beyond that, there's little certainty. As you watch the events on the tube, you will have no way of knowing if you are seeing a clean or dirty event, a real athletic competition or a duel between pharmacists.
That's because, say its critics, neither will the International Olympic Committee. "I think right now every performance in an endurance event is suspect," says Frank Shorter, the former gold-medal marathoner who is chairman of the new, independent U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, which takes over drug enforcement from the U.S. Olympic Committee in October.
Not so, says Craig Masback, chief executive officer of USA Track and Field, the governing body in the U.S. for a sport with a druggie reputation. He insists these Games will be, by and large, clean: "The Olympics are the most tested sports movement in the world. I believe the vast majority of athletes aren't on drugs." Counters Shorter: "Anybody can look at a dirty athlete and know he's dirty. All bulked up. His face changing..." Masback says, "You can't ban an athlete because he looks suspicious. That's why there are tests." And, he adds, "it's unfortunate [that] old athletes who want their records to continue to shine are shouting about how everyone today is cheating."
Fellas, let's move on.
Masback's arguments notwithstanding, the prospects for cheaters have never been better, because drug testing as it has existed heretofore means little. The I.O.C., fearing false positive tests of clean athletes and subsequent lawsuits in nations that enjoy due process (read, the U.S.), has set its "dirty" bar extremely high. And most cheaters are careful to choose hard-to-detect drugs or stop their intake well in advance of expected tests.
It's not news that any athlete carefully monitoring his intake could take banned substances and still pass Olympic tests. We now know that by 1978 East German athletes in every sport except sailing were being given anabolic steroids. Yet in 1976 and 1980 not one East German tested positive for drugs at the Summer Games. The country took home a total of 216 medals, 87 of them gold, from those Olympics.